Is water birth less painful?
Let's find out what the general consensus is on the matter...
One of the most important decisions a woman with a healthy pregnancy has to make is related to the type of delivery she will have. You’ve got the obvious two: vaginal and planned Caesarean section (C-section). But more women are turning to another option — water birth* — mainly due to the idea that it involves less pain. So, is water birth less painful in reality?
We tend to think of water births as a trendy new concept. But its roots can be traced to way back in time. Janet Balaskas is a well-known advocate for active birth and writes about the history of water births.
She describes legends of ancient Egyptian pharaohs being birthed in water by their mothers, and of South Pacific islanders giving birth in the warm, shallow waters of the ocean. In Guyana, South America, some women still go to a sacred birthing place in the river to give birth.
In Europe, the first documented water birth took place in 1805, in France. But it was in the 1960s that research on the benefits of water births seriously commenced, spearheaded by Russian water birth pioneer Igor Tjarkovsky.
Other champions of water births included French obstetricians Frederick Leboyer and Michel Odent.
A water birth involves part of your labour or delivery, or both, taking place in a tub (birth pool) filled with warm water. While many hospitals offer water births now, they may also be conducted at home.
In Singapore, you may have a home water birth only if an obstetrician is present with you. But in many other countries, the presence of a midwife or doula only is usually accepted.
Proponents of water birth strongly affirm that a water birth has numerous benefits to both mum and baby.
- More relaxation
- Reduced pain
- Freedom of movement
- Less medical intervention
- Reduced chances of episiotomy
- More enjoyable for mum
- Less stress on baby
The medical experts at WebMD also state that the use of a birthing pool in the first stage of labour (from when contractions start, to when the cervix is fully dilated) may have some benefits. For example, it might help ease the pain, reduce the need for anesthesia and speed up the labour process. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) agrees.
So, is water birth less painful? Yes, it can ease some discomfort of labour. But there is no definite answer. This is because each woman’s pain threshold is different and her level of tolerance, unique.
So while experiencing contractions in the water might numb or reduce the discomfort, it may not take it away altogether.
Having said that, I personally used water in both my births as pain relief (known as hydrotherapy or water immersion). I did not use any chemical pain relief in either birth and I can confidently say that the water definitely helped ease the discomfort of contractions. But it did not take away the pain completely.
When it comes to the pain factor, yes, medical professionals seem to agree that water can provide some relief from contractions.
Dr Anay Bhalerao says, “water births can be more relaxing, and the contractions may feel less painful. That said, you can always get some pain relief during the labour. Evidence also suggests that babies born through this method are calmer, so that is a definite plus.”
When it comes to the second stage of labour, some medical professionals state that there is not enough information to decide if a water birth is safe, or useful. The second stage of labour is when your cervix is fully dilated and you start pushing.
ACOG spokesperson Dr Aaron Caughey is quoted by Web MD as saying, “If you have to do an emergency C-section, it would be foolhardy to risk an extra 4 or 5 minutes to move you out of the water.”
In other words, being out of the water at this stage would make it easier to act fast if the need arises. But at the same time, plenty of women also deliver their babies in the water (see video below).
You cannot have an epidural during a water birth. This is because water births most often take place at home where an anesthesiologist won’t be present. Even if you are in hospital, the water will interfere with taping the epidural catheter.
You can use Entonox (“gas”) as pain relief during a water birth.
Watch this peaceful water birth:
*If you are considering a water birth, please discuss this first with your ob-gyn, including all pros and cons.